Friday, March 15, 2013

The Wicked Stage in NYC: Kinky Boots and more.

Posted By on Fri, Mar 15, 2013 at 3:13 PM

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So your intrepid theatre critic caught five shows in the Big Apple as he zipped up north for spring break. But at least one show is a better fit for good ol’ Texas: Hands on a Hardbody: The Musical, which sounds as risqué as Oh, Calcutta! but is in fact far closer to Oh, Nissan! Indeed, the musical is adapted from the mid-1990s documentary of the same name, which chronicles a Nissan dealer contest in which Longview residents attempt to win a hardbody (truck) by keeping their hands on the hardbody the longest. The last person standing wins. (Most of the also-rans drop out from numbness, or delirium, or both.)

Now, if this sounds like a weird idea for a musical, I think that’s the point: it turns the idea of a traditional dance musical on its ear. And it’s not just because I’m a classics professor that the musical reminded me of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, which also features a protagonist chained to the same spot all evening. How does a playwright possibly make that situation dramatically vibrant? The solution of author Doug Wright and choreographer Sergio Trujillo is to use character-driven solos to “escape,” if only temporarily, the physical reality of the play; but that solution is used sparingly, and many of the splashiest dance numbers are indeed danced with all hands on deck—er, on hood. The score—by Amanda Green and Phish’s Trey Anastasio—is a winning confection of rock, gospel, and country-western, and there’s something strangely compelling about the whole evening: it’s like a really spiffy musical version of Survivor: Longview. My guess is that it will have a rocky road to success on Broadway, but will be popular on the regional circuit: certainly, it should have a run in San Antonio. (It seems like the sort of thing the new Woodlawn would have success with.)

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Also in previews is Kinky Boots, Cyndi Lauper’s musicalization of a British film about a financially-struggling shoe company that reinvents itself for a drag clientele. The first act is the gayest thing I’ve seen since Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Musical!, but the second act drags the wrong way, as a few severe character reversals make absolutely no psychological sense. (Now, my companion for the evening immediately chided me for my naiveté: “Tom, you are looking for psychological profundity in a piece calculated to be experienced on a purely aesthetic level.” That’s an exact quote, by the way—this is how we theater queens talk in real life. Eeek.) Still, I soldier onward: the problem is that Lauper can write good music, but not adequate musical-theater lyrics: so the book (by Harvey Fierstein) has to do double-duty in terms of plot. There’s simply too much crammed into the book of the second act, and while the whole thing is enjoyable as a drag fantasia on the notion of masculinity, I actually think Fierstein’s La Cage Aux Folles goes to more interesting places, both psychologically and politically. My guess is that Kinky Boots will do well on Broadway, and will eventually tour.

I also caught the revival of Sondheim’s Passion at the Classic Stage Company; it’s a gorgeously sung production (with music direction by my old college pal Rob Berman), with an appropriately minimalist look (by John Doyle, also director). By stripping away the painterly artifice of the original Broadway production, the production highlights the psychological complexities of the central, mismatched trio; Judy Kuhn, Melissa Errico, and Ryan Silverman all turn in outstanding work. I wish I could say I were, um, passionate about this musical, but I just don’t find it—again—psychologically plausible that a gorgeous young soldier would ever fall for the grotesque, ugly harpy who has been hounding him for some eighty minutes of stage time. (And I hate the character of the meddlesome doctor, a really contrived version of Euripides’ Nurse from Medea.) The ending—however beautifully sung—still rings to me completely false.

BellevilleSometimes I owe thanks to Charles Isherwood—the second-string critic at the NYT—for steering me towards authors I might otherwise overlook: for instance, Isherwood was a strong and early champion of Will Eno, who I now regard as one of the bright lights of the American theater. Isherwood’s championing of Amy Herzog, however, is a bit more puzzling; I thought Herzog’s Obie Award-winning 4000 Miles was a lovely character study, but slender; her latest, Belleville, is seriously over-rated, and I was looking at my watch at well under the sixty-minute mark. The gist is this: a feckless expatriate American couple takes up residence in Belleville, a neighborhood of Paris, where she’s an instructor and he’s a physician with an NGO. But there are (of course) secrets ready to roil the seemingly still waters of their relationship—and the couple’s landlords (immigrants from Senegal) provide the catalyst. Touted as a “psychological thriller,” Belleville is composed in a hyperrealistic style which is supposed to be taut with ambivalences and verbal tension, but which is actually sort of a snooze. Sometimes banality is just banality, ya know? And, yes, I get the point of the play: an indictment of American self-delusion in the face of Old World values. But why this piece has received such rapturous praise eludes me.

Last, but not least, there was John Rando’s rip-roaring revival of David Ives’ All in the Timing, a collection of six verbally dexterous playlets that each require crack timing. If the final playlet—about the death of Trotsky—reaches for a profundity that the evening hasn’t quite earned, the previous five—including the classic “The Universal Language”—more than make up for this minor tonal lapse. Smartly designed (by Beowulf Borritt) and winningly acted, this is one of the best off-Broadway productions I’ve ever seen. If you happen to be in NYC, I’d recommend it.

--Thomas Jenkins

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